Jacob and the ladder

Insights into People in the Torah series.

Moshe Kempinski,

Judaism Moshe Kempinski
Moshe Kempinski
צילום: PR

The people of Israel did not become a people, until  Yaacov (Jacob) fathered them into existence. It was not Abraham with his overflowing attribute of Hessed – Loving-Kindness that created a people. It was also not Yitzchak with his deep reverence and power of self-denial. It had to be Yaacov with his power of perseverance and his ability to take courageous step after step that would prevail. It is Yaacov that bequeathed to his children the courage to enter the darkness, survive in exile and still retain identity and sense of purpose.

Yet all these traits had to be first learnt by Yaacov (Jacob) himself.

In the Torah portion of VaYeitzeh (Genesis 28:10–32:3) ,we see Yaacov fleeing from his home. He was escaping from a brother who was set to kill him. He was running from a father who may have lost some measure of faith and confidence in his son. He was leaving without knowing when he was to return. And he was leaving into a land of the unknown, and into a future filled with challenges and doubt.

It was this flight into exile and the accompanying sense of insecurity that would become the shared experience of his descendants as they themselves would stumble from exile to exile.

Yaacov runs away feeling very unsure about himself and his worthiness. Yitzchak’s ( Isaac’s ) words pierced his heart:

And Yitzchak said to Yaacov, "Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esav( Esau)  or not." So Yaacov drew near to Yitzchak his father, and he felt him, and he said, "The voice is the voice of Yaacov, but the hands are the hands of Esav." .'”(Genesis 27:21-22).    

Yaacov was aware that what he did regarding the blessings was clearly within the desire of G-d. Yet Yaacov may have been deeply troubled by the gnawing question of how much of Esav’s character had seeped into his soul. Had “the hands of Esav” overtaken his spiritual “voice of Yaacov”.

He is fatigued and drained and he falls asleep on a rock in the middle of the field.

It is then that G-d reveals to him a powerful image and a deeply impacting metaphor:

"And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder set up on the earth, ...a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it. And behold, Hashem was standing over him, and He said, "I am Hashem, the G-d of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed." ( Genesis 28:12-13)



 The image of Yaacov’s ladder has fired the imagination and hearts of many looking for divine inspiration and empowerment. The imagery is almost theatrical and intricately crafted.

The  Midrash Tanhumah, views the ladder as signifying the history of mankind and the path of Jewish destiny. Each of its rungs and angels representing each of the succeeding  kingdoms that ruled the earth, revealing their ascent and eventual descent from power. 

Rashi quoting the Midrash Rabba explains that the location of the ladder and the timing of the vision describe the fact that "The angels who escorted him in the Land of Israel do not leave the Land but ascend to Heaven, and angels whose domain is outside of Israel descend to accompany him." Other views see the ladder as the pathway to spiritual elevation and  like  the “Nefesh haChaim”, see the ladder representing our individual yearning for spirituality. The Zohar simply sees it as representing Prayer.

Yet there is another layer of understanding, as well. In the midst of Yaacov's running away from Esau and in the midst of the vision of the ladder , he is promised “great things” by G-d.

"And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you."( ibid:14-15)

Why is it that we then read the following?

"And Yaacov awakened from his sleep, and he said, "Indeed, Hashem is in this place, and I did not know it." (ibid 6)

Is it possible that the man raised and educated in the house of Isaac and Rebecca did not know that Hashem is everywhere?

And then we read ; "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear and I come again to my father's house in peace; Hashem will be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, will be God's house; and of all that You give me I will surely give one tenth to You. (ibid 28:20-22)

Was G-d's promise not enough for Yaacov?

In spite of all the promises, Yaacov felt unworthy. Yaacov thought that perhaps some sin or inaction on his part would deflect him from this destiny.

 Yaacov was set to go into exile, a world seemingly so devoid of  G-d's immanent  Presence, and as a result he was not sure he had  the strength and tenacity to live up to his mission.

 In that sense we are all Yaacov. As a result of the mistakes and downturns in our lives, we may have begun to feel so unworthy. As a result of that sense we can sometimes turn even further away from our G-d and our purpose. because We feel so unworthy that we feel that we cannot even "look upon His face “In the words of the prophet Ezekiel " Now you, son of man, say to the house of Israel; So have you spoken, saying: For our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and because of them we are melting away, so how can we live?(Ezekiel 33:10).

Yet that is not the reality of our spiritual  lives. Sin does not keep G-d away from man, sin can keep man away from G-d.

So G-d gives Yaacov and us, his descendants, a sign, the ladder.

Yaacov is being told that, in spite of his lowly state and difficult present situation, he will always have before him a ladder that can bring him to the highest of heights. There will never be a place of utter despair.

This helps explain Yaacov's next statement: "And Yaacov awakened out of his sleep, and he said: 'surely Hashem is in this place; and I knew it not.' "

HaShem is not only in this place and in this situation but rather, He and His ladder would be available in all locations and in all situations. The ladder then is made up of all its understandings. It reflects destiny, spiritual growth and prayer.

Yet its most important message is an awareness of What and Who is standing above the ladder waiting for mankind  to begin the ascent;

" And behold, HaShem was standing over him, and He said, "I am HaShem, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac"(Genesis 28:13)

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther